January 18th – Germany is unified as a nation

Painting by Anton von Werner of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18th, 1871. Otto von Bismarck is depicted in the white uniform.

Painting by Anton von Werner of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18th, 1871. Otto von Bismarck is depicted in the white uniform.

Ah one of my favourite historical topics. On this day in 1871, Germany was unified as a nation, following the German victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War. With the proclamation of the German Empire and Kaiser Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, an united Germany soon became the economic and industrial powerhouse of Europe.

For hundreds of years, the lands that we know today as Germany existed as multiple independent states. In fact, prior to 1806 (Holy Roman Empire times), Germany was made up of over 300 small states. Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Congress of Vienna, many of these smaller states were consolidated together and a general collection of German-speaking states formed, called the German Confederation. Similar to today’s European Union, states with the German Confederation had their own independence and autonomy, however decisions concerning the Confederation as a whole were decided in a parliament in Frankfurt. Within the German Confederation, two nations emerged as the most powerful within the association: Austria and Prussia.

The topic of German unification is rather lengthy and complex, so I will try to be as “to-the-point” as I can from here on out. The power struggle between Austria and Prussia would play a central role in German unification. Under the leadership of the Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck, Prussia and Austria allied to take on Denmark for the duchy of Schlewsig in 1864. Emerging victorious over Denmark, Prussia and Austria soon disputed the status of Schleswig and went to war against each other in 1866. Prussian victory against the Austrians confirmed that Prussia, under the leadership of Bismarck, was now the dominant German state and would lead the way for German unification.

By 1871, Prussia had succeeded in uniting much of Northern Germany as the North German Confederation, however the southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria remained outside of the unified German state. Bismarck, through his diplomatic prowess, decided to orchestrate a war that would unify all Germans, both in the North and South, against a common enemy. In 1871, war broke out between Prussia and France, and through Bismarck’s statescraft, convinced the south German states to come to Prussia’s aid. Emerging victorious in the critical Battle of Sedan, united German victory over France was the catalytic event in German unification. On January 18th, 1871 the unified German Empire was proclaimed, with the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, declared the German Emperor at the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

The rest is history as some would say. The unified German nation soon became, arguably, the most powerful nation on the European continent. An unified Germany would figure as a dominant player in the world wars, and found itself re-divided after the end of the Second World War into West and East Germany. Re-unification of West and East would happen on October 3rd, 1990 following the symbolic downfall of the Berlin Wall an year beforehand. Interestingly it is that date, October 3rd, which is celebrated today in Germany as its national holiday, rather than January 18th, the date that the modern German state that we know was first created.

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